August 09, 2010
DH: If you back-flip The Lovers by Vendela Vida you will find six blurbs. What the blurbs say is of no importance. Also of no importance is whether the authors of the blurbs have read The Lovers. There are no negative blurbs, which would be a crime against nature.
Four of the six blurbs are by writers I love: Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, Julie Orringer and Zoe Heller. I circled the names of the other two, Miranda July and Stephen Elliott, so I would remember to read them.
Vendela hasn’t made writing this novel easy for herself. She keeps Yvonne, her principal, isolated for a remarkable amount of time. Is this a disastrous mistake? You write “John sat in his room.” or “John made coffee.” because you don’t know what the fuck to do with John.
Hawthorne wrote a chapter of “The House of the Seven Gables” that consists of a dead character in a room. I love the chances that great American literature can take.
The good double V makes Yvonne’s isolation the shoreline on which The Lovers pivots. Yvonne is a widow traveling back to Darca in Turkey, where she spent her honeymoon, to reestablish a living tie to her husband, Peter. They were Vermont schoolteachers. Peter died, parked, in a hit and run.
Yvonne has pulled out the plug since her husband’s death. I love Vida’s small, insistent psych-outs, like gnats buzzing around your ears. You try to brush them away but you also wonder if it’s just your imagination. Because Yvonne has disconnected herself, she’s set up for a pattern of confusions.
Y is a highly competent teacher but she’s caught teaching the same lesson twice to the same class. Her principal urges her to take vacation time and VV implies he’d be happy to have Yvonne on vacation permanently. She arrives at the small Darca airport from Istanbul and waits around for her pickup, a stranger in alien territory, thinking that there’s been some terrible mix-up about her email-made arrangements. We’ve all been through the missed connection. But Yvonne feels at sea congenitally so it doesn’t take much for her to fear she is sinking.
Yvonne’s rented vacation house has a history. Yvonne walks through the three floors plus basement, trying to put together the decor combination of tackiness and affluence. Who lives here? Why is there a hook in the ceiling above the bed in the master bedroom? There are porn pictures under the couch and sex toys left out in another bedroom upstairs. But you have to sleep somewhere. Choose. The reader becomes the character if there is no other character. There’s no one else to identify with. The reader will always identify with someone or they will put the book down.
I’ve talked to Caitlin Macy about her skilled use of the unreliable narrator. I should have added at the time that CM’s narrators think they are reliable. Jason Rice has told me that it’s not possible to fathom intentions. That’s one reason for the methodically observed detail of speech and behavior in his powerful fiction. The good Johnny Evison has told me how characters struggle for self-realization, how there’s a wall or a quirk (struggling with my own words here) that can hold them back. And in two posts I’ve written about James Salter, I’ve talked about his slow-elevator technique of storytelling. How writing doesn’t spill the beans all at once, anymore than you can transition in the blink of an eye from the tenth floor of a building to the lobby in a hundred year old lift. Now from the splendid Vendela Vida, as I try to piece together a model of writing, I see these techniques internalized in one central character attempting to escape from mourning.
I’m such a lucky guy to be blogging. I can ask some of the most talented writers how to write, directly, and even ask them follow-up questions. Especially if I try to ply them with beer. It’s like I’m walking along the strand, tripped up by beautiful seashells, not knowing which to pick up.
If you flip over The Lovers from the pantheon of blurbs side and look closely at those words and “Vendela Vida”, you’ll find a font of seashells. They play an important role in the story. Also, in the lower right hand corner of the cover, you’ll see a dark silhouette of a boy facing you, eyeless, standing in the surf. That is the story. Of course I noticed that VV has picked a lead character’s name that has a “v” in it…and a “Y” that has a “v” on its roof.
In page after page of sensitively observed detail, psyching-out expertise and growing, owl-like shadows that have you dreading what the next page may bring, dreading what may happen as much as Yvonne, Vendela Vida shows us how to write a novel. I’m saying this with great respect, deference even, for distinguished art…but I don’t care who her husband is. I’d rather read Vendela Vida than Dave Eggers. Taste.